Including a Sibling in a NICU Stay

December 17, 2014

My heart was torn in two when I realized that my second child would be in the NICU for a long while. How could I possibly include his older sibling in a NICU stay? Now I had two children and I wanted to be with both of them at the same time. The NICU makes that virtually impossible. Though my heart was divided between them, and it was less than ideal quality time, we found some ways to manage through the mess of it all.

My oldest was also a NICU baby. Strangely, that first NICU experience worked to our advantage the second time around. Seeing his brother on a warmer bed, hooked up to monitors suddenly helped his baby pictures make sense to him. He naively thought that all babies went to the NICU before they came home from the hospital. That was norm to him, and sadly to us as well.

Even if you’re not a veteran NICU parent, there are many things you can do to include your older child(ren) in on a sibling’s NICU stay. Here is our “sibling in a NICU” plan which we put into place for 50 consecutive days:

Thankfully our NICU allowed siblings to come and visit. We let big brother visit the NICU at most once a day. March of Dimes provided a “craft cart,” so he set up a little desk with stickers, crayons, and coloring books. He played as quietly as we could keep him. Often it wasn’t for very long, and some days hardly felt worth the effort to get him there, but it was a way to include him, and overall very meaningful to all of us.

During his visits, we let him bring toys to his baby brother. He brought some birthday gifts that we had planned for him to give long before his brother was born. He would also send me to the hospital with little toys from home. I would simply set them by his brother’s bedside.

We used Skype, Facetime, and lots of photos to stay connected. On the days that baby brother wasn’t doing well and big brother couldn’t go in for a visit, we made use of technology. We let him see photos of his brother on our phones, took pictures of him to show to baby brother. We also asked him draw pictures of himself to be sent back to the hospital.

We spent a lot of time talking about medical equipment with our big kid. We explained that the NG tube is like a noodle that goes down baby’s nose and into his tummy to feed him since he can’t eat out of a bottle. The leads are stickers that are taped to his skin so the doctors know that he’s not hurting. And all of the beeping computers are so that the doctors and nurses can make sure that his baby brother is feeling good.

We established a routine. It wasn’t our normal routine, but it was our new NICU routine and it was consistent. Every morning I would get up early, before my oldest woke up, and go down to the hospital. That way we didn’t have to deal with more upsetting transitions and goodbyes. My dad, sister-in-law, whomever was staying with us at the time, would bring big brother down to the hospital at lunchtime and we would all eat together. Then, while our extended family visited with the baby, my oldest and I went on “adventures” around the hospital. We got creative and turned the gift shop, courtyard areas, and cafeteria into fun places for pretend play. After playing around the hospital for a little while, I would take him up to the NICU to see little brother. Afterward we would all go home together for dinner. It was an exhausting schedule but it was the best way for me to get time with both of my boys.

I quickly discovered that it’s not uncommon for siblings to regress and act out. My, then three-year-old, started to put things in his mouth, suck his thumb, have potty accidents, and way more issues with separation anxiety. I reached out to a social worker who put me in touch with a Child Life Specialist. It was incredibly helpful for someone, a professional, tell me that this is all normal behavior. She told me that my kid is smart, confident, communicative, resilient, and he’s going to be okay. She told me to keep setting limits as his parent, but to let him feel in control through his play and give him choices with inconsequential things. She said that it was okay for him to act out his frustrations on his stuffed animals.


Dressed up as a doctor for Career Day at preschool.

The single biggest thing that we constantly expressed to our oldest was that he will be well cared for. Either mommy, daddy, grandparents, aunts, or friends’ mommies, people who love him, would be there to care for him. He will get fed, bathed, played with, and put to bed. He would be kept safe. There was no way we could consistently give him ourselves when his brother was in the NICU, however we could promise him everything that he needed would be provided.

I think he looks back on those days as happy memories because he’ll occasionally say enthusiastically, “Remember when we played fire truck on your bed at Seton hospital?” He still tells me that when he grows up he wants to be a doctor, a nurse, a helicopter pilot, and an ambulance driver. And I have no doubt that, through his experiences, he is very well equipped for any and all of those roles!

And who did he decide to be for career day at preschool? A doctor, of course.